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The Science of the City: Pedestrian safety cause for county concern

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Posted on: April 13, 2023

By Paul Ruffins

Paul Ruffins is a citizen scientist and professor of curiosity.

Columnist note: In this and my next few columns, I’ll be taking a look at Prince George’s County’s high rate of traffic injuries and fatalities. This installment focuses on a detailed study of a pedestrian death on a local road. 

At the intersection of Hamilton Street and Ager Road, across from the West Hyattsville Metro station, is a small memorial of flowers and a cross honoring Helen Jorgensen, who was killed by a car on Aug. 13, 2021. She was 61, and her death added to a terrible trend. According to Pamela Sebesky, chair of the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board, 360 lives were lost on roads in the greater metropolitan area that year; the total includes deaths of pedestrians, drivers, passengers and bicyclists. “This represents a 12% increase in fatalities from the prior year and the second year in a row that fatalities have risen. Serious injuries also rose,” Sebesky wrote.

In the last five years, the number of pedestrian fatalities has increased much faster than the overall number of traffic accidents. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, pedestrian deaths have increased 59% from 2009 and account for 17% of all traffic deaths. (Fatalities involving bicyclists are at 2%.) Prince George’s County has had an unusually high number of pedestrian deaths. According to figures from regional police departments compiled by DCist, an online newsletter of WAMU, the pedestrian death rate in Prince George’s County was 11.8 per 100,000 residents in 2022, 240% higher than the District’s rate (4.9 per 100,000) and 274% higher than that of Montgomery County (4.3 per 100,000).

Prince George’s County is implementing the Vision Zero program, which aims to reduce traffic injuries and deaths. Vision Zero grew out of an initiative that has reduced traffic fatalities in Sweden, the Netherlands and New Zealand by more than 50% since the mid-1990s. Other nearby jurisdictions have adopted the Vision Zero program as well.

Rather than focus on the mistakes of individual drivers or pedestrians, this data-driven approach prioritizes structural issues, such as roadway design, and targets areas that are inherently more dangerous. Some of the most dangerous local areas are University Avenue from Edwards Place, in Langley Park; to West Park Drive, in Lewisdale/Adelphi; and Kenilworth Avenue from Carters Lane to River Road, in Riverdale Park. The area in Green Meadows/Lewisdale where East-West Highway, Riggs Road and Ager Road come together is particularly dangerous. 

Jorgensen, however, was hit in a crosswalk in a stretch of Ager Road specifically designed to be safe.

The Jorgensen accident was the subject of a recent crash analysis discussion organized by civic leaders and local activists. 

 Hyattsville City Councilmember Danny Schaible (Ward 2) nominated the crash for investigation. “It took place on a 1.28-mile section of the recently completed State Highway Administration’s Ager Road Green Complete Streets Project, near the West Hyattsville Metro station, which won a 2023 design award from the American Society of Civil Engineers,” he wrote in an email to the Hyattsville Life & Times. The project was intended to improve stormwater runoff and make Ager Road safer for drivers, pedestrians and cyclists. Upgrades to the road included two 11-foot travel lanes, a 6-foot bike lane, continuous 6-foot sidewalks, 11-foot turn lanes, and ADA-compliant sidewalks, driveway entrances and bus stops. 

The Jorgensen accident didn’t occur at the site of her memorial, but in a crosswalk in the 5600 block of Ager Road where the posted speed limit is 30 mph. According to police reports, the crash had several complicating factors. The victim was intoxicated and may not have activated pedestrian warning lights, and the driver originally left the scene before returning and might have been distracted by an electronic device he was using.

 Speed may have also been a factor — even a significant factor. After tracking 600 vehicles with a radar gun, volunteers from the Washington Area Bicyclist Association determined that speeds along this block of Ager Road ranged from 19 to 55 miles per hour, with close to seven in 10 drivers exceeding the speed limit. More than 7% of drivers were going more than 10 mph over the limit.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has determined that speed is a critical factor in traffic accidents. Speed doesn’t only increase a vehicle’s momentum at impact, it lengthens stopping distances, and reduces a driver’s ability to handle curves. Seatbelt use, body panels designed to crumple and absorb energy, padded dashboards and multiple airbags may save the lives of drivers and passengers, even in crashes at highway speeds. But pedestrians remain at high risk, and even a small increase in speed can make a deadly difference. According to an IIHS report, a pedestrian hit by a car or light truck going 17 mph has a 10% chance of being killed or seriously injured. That risk rises to 90% when the car’s going 48 mph. 

Why are 70% of the drivers on Ager Road speeding? 

Dan Behrend is a local traffic safety advocate (and writer for Streetcar Suburbs News). He and members of the panel believe that Ager Road is simply too wide for its intended use. The stretch between East-West Highway and the West Hyattsville Metro station has characteristics of a highway designed for some 20,000 cars a day traveling at speeds of 40 mph or more, but this stretch of Ager Road carries about half that number of vehicles. “Drivers almost unconsciously drive the speed the road was designed for,” Behrend said. “Simply slapping up signs saying ‘30 miles per hour’ isn’t working.”   

Schaible noted that the county’s new street design standards, which recommend a speed limit of 25 mph around Metro stations, kicked in in 2017, after the long-planned improvements to Ager Road were largely done. (The work to reconnect Ager Road to Queens Chapel Road, however, remains unfinished.)

“Ager Road is simply too wide and fast for an area where we are encouraging thousands of pedestrians and cyclists to cross it to get to the Metro station every day,” Schaible said.

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